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Soccer-loving Pope Francis cheers on players at morality-focused pep rally

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Aug. 13, 2013: In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis is applauded by Italy goalie Gianluigi Buffon, left, and Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi during a private audience at the Vatican. (AP/Osservatore Romano)

Pope Francis cheered fellow Argentine Lionel Messi and other soccer stars Tuesday as he held a morality-focused pep rally of sorts at the Vatican for Argentina and Italy's national teams ahead of their eagerly awaited friendly match.

Francis, the first pontiff from Latin America, is an avid soccer fan who roots for the Saints of San Lorenzo back in Buenos Aires. Since his election as pope in March he has accumulated a growing collection of soccer jerseys tossed to him by fans at his public appearances.

Barcelona star Messi, his teammates on the Argentine national soccer squad, as well as Italy's national team players were treated to a private audience with Francis in the Apostolic Palace ahead of Wednesday's rare match.

But the pope gracefully dodged the question of whether he'd offer a papal blessing for his home country's team. "It will really be a bit difficult for me to root, but luckily it's a friendly match" whose outcome doesn't count in the standings, he said.

Francis noted the influence of athletes, especially on youth, and told the players to remember that, "for better or worse" they are role models. "Dear players, you are very popular. People follow you, and not just on the field but also off it," he said. "That's a responsibility."

The pope also said he yearned for the times of his youth when his entire family could happily and safely go to stadiums, expressing hope that "we'll see families in the stands again."

He also voiced hope that violence and discrimination would disappear from the soccer world, a reference to fan brawling and occasional racist chants and banners that taunt players who are descendants of immigrants to Europe from Africa and elsewhere.

Italian national coach Claudio Cesare Prandelli said he didn't get the chance to invite Francis to Wednesday's game.

"He anticipated my question," Prandelli said after the gathering. "He said he has received so many requests" to attend the game, but indicated that the Vatican security apparatus gave the thumbs-down.

Prandelli said Francis told him that Vatican security officials scold him "for being so undisciplined," a reference to the pope's frequent breaches of protocol when he embraces the faithful in crowds or shuns bullet-proof vehicles.

The pope also asked the players to pray for him, "so that I, on the `field' upon which God placed me, can play an honest and courageous game for the good of us all."

Such a plea made quite an impression on Italy's captain, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who is a big fan of this pope.

"That's a sign of his great humility, of his great humanity," Buffon said. "He's warmed up the hearts again of all the faithful who might have drifted away" from the church during past papacies.